And here we are, the final match of the 2021 NWSL season, the NWSL Championship.
Washington Spirit bested the Chicago Red Stars 2-1 in an absolute classic match for the very young NWSL league, a match that required added extra time. Goals from Andi Sullivan and Kelley O’Hara for Washington were what put them over Chicago’s lone goal just before halftime by Rachel Hill.
Even though OL Reign weren’t playing in this match, there was still a lot about NWSL Championship weekend worth highlighting.
WHAT WORKED: WELCOME TO THE NWSL CHAMPIONSHIP
NWSL Championship is becoming an event. Beyond the tight-knit but still niche world of women’s soccer fandom, it is slowly but surely growing into an event. If you are already emotionally, financially, and socially invested in the beautiful game, you may want to check out next year’s championship, wherever it is. A lot of that goes down to the host city embracing it, promoting it, and making it feel like an event. Louisville has definitely done that. Kudos to them for attendance that broke 10,000, especially on a really short notice — about a month in advance — of relocating the final from Portland.
There is a bigger commentary to be said that the 2022 championship game’s location must be announced earlier than even the original announcement for Portland, which came in September, but the turnaround here worked well. Racing Louisville, Lynn Family Stadium, and the army of people involved in the logistics understood the assignment. Fans of either Spirit, Red Stars, or just general NWSL/soccer fans that came here for championship weekend, were welcomed to a city, a venue that did their part to make it feel like an event — including prominent signage at the airport.
Louisville provided a solid foundation of what a city can do when hosting an NWSL Championship. It’s highly unlikely they would be hosting the 2022 edition, but anyone that was in Louisville this weekend for the final will echo this sentiment that they absolutely can and should host again.
Notable food spots to visit: Royals Hot Chicken, Señora Arepa, Louisville Cream, Hi-Five Donuts. Also an absolute must-visit when in Louisville, the Muhammad Ali Center.
WHAT WORKED: WASHINGTON SPIRIT COMMENTARY
About five Washington Spirit players who were not matchday selections were just a few rows from my press seat. Excuse the pun, but spirited commentary throughout the match was on display. Calls made/not made by referee Tori Penso. Loud noises at near chances, relief when Andi Sullivan converted the penalty, O’Hara’s header in extra time. What’s hard to predict in championship matches is how the environment will be. Sheer happenstance of being this close to these players provided an entertaining audio track to match a quite entertaining game.
WHAT WORKED: BLACK FUTURE CO-OP FUND
During halftime of the match, the NWSL and Nationwide announced the winner of the Nationwide Community Impact Award. OL Reign’s community partner, Black Future Co-Op Fund, won the award and were recognized at halftime. Of course, it would have been more ideal if OL Reign were playing at the match, but their presence and more importantly the group they were supporting — so prominently displayed on the front of their kits this season — were recognized for their initiatives creating Black generational wealth, health, and well-being.
The #NationwideImpactAward was announced during halftime at Lynn Family Stadium. Our own @jacobcristobal got video of the moment! pic.twitter.com/cFdBbvRBuh— Ride of the Valkyries (@rovalks) November 20, 2021
WHAT WORKED: TRINITY RODMAN, MAN
2021 NWSL Rookie of the Year Trinity Rodman is simply appointment viewing.
There was a lot of excitement about her entering the league. And whatever expectations there were for a 19-year-old, she absolutely smoked them. Her impact on the field today was exactly what you want to see in terms of individual performances at the highest stakes of games, translating into great TV and something indescribable in person. For example, this pass to O’Hara that would be the match-winner.
Picture-perfect first goal of the season from @kelleymohara #WASvCHI | @CBS | #NWSL21 pic.twitter.com/89ohWFr9Dl— National Women’s Soccer League (@NWSL) November 20, 2021
WHAT WORKED: THE GAME WAS A CLASSIC
Right from the rip, Chicago Red Stars did the thing that had worked for them through this season and why they were playing in the championship game — all-out gas in the opening 15 minutes. However, for Saturday, they kept it up well beyond that to everyone’s surprise. When Rachel Hill opened the scoring for Chicago right before halftime, it sure looked to be a massive momentum swing that if they could just see it out the next 45 minutes, they avenge their 2019 NWSL Championship loss.
However, the second half was all Washington Spirit — especially after Rodman’s shot hit the post in the 61st minute.
The Rook rocks the bar #WASvCHI | @CBS | #NWSL21 pic.twitter.com/JbWH3LzQGi— National Women’s Soccer League (@NWSL) November 20, 2021
With Chicago forward Mallory Pugh subbed out at halftime, their biggest attacking option off the field, it was clear that Washington’s confidence grew. Head coach Kris Ward said in his post-match presser that once they were able to start moving around with the ball, namely in the attacking front, they were able to play their game more.
With Rodman putting on an individual performance that shows why she is being described as a generational talent, would Washington be able to find that first goal to tie it up? When they did thanks to a penalty kick, Chicago endured Washington’s increasing knocking on the door — all the way to the drama of added extra time, where finally the winner was found. It was a solid game fitting of a championship billing. The 10,360 in attendance sure were given a show, and it translated well on television.
The NWSL has a lot of work to do in so many aspects on and off the field, but for this Saturday afternoon, all eyes were on what was happening on the field and we got an entertaining game to fit what is supposed to be the celebration of a long, challenging season. Teamwork and a little bit of individual magic were very much on display, and it was definitely a match the league can be proud of calling a proper championship game.
And that is a wrap on the 2021 NWSL season. While OL Reign’s season ended last Sunday in the semifinal, a champion still had to be crowned. Congratulations to the Washington Spirit.
Now begins quite possibly the most hectic and intriguing offseason in the NWSL’s short history. There are many structural and off-the-field concerns that need to be worked on from a player safety and labor power perspective, but with the arrival of two expansion teams, every single NWSL roster is going to experience shakeups. The 2022 season may be the biggest one yet, while this 2021 season may be the most important in shaping where the NWSL wants to go, and what the NWSL wants to be.